Koh Chang is an island of contradictions. It’s pretty well known, but it’s not exactly famous. It’s easy to get to, but also quite complicated. Koh Chang is huge – the third largest island in Thailand, but it feels small. It’s developed, but it’s not built up. And despite basically not knowing it existed a few days before we went, it’s now one of our favourite Thai islands.
In true Thai style, we only arranged our trip to Koh Chang about 4 days in advance. The Thai government has a fondness for announcing public holidays at very short notice, and this was one of those situations. With a three day weekend to play with, Koh Chang was an ideal destination.
Getting to Koh Chang
Tucked away in the east of Thailand, Koh Chang is actually surprisingly easy to get to. It’s not as close as somewhere like Koh Samet, but the drive is pretty easy and unlike Samet, the road isn’t still under construction. Our friends drove a rental car to Koh Chang and it took around 4 hours from Bangkok to reach the pier. Admittedly they left at 3am, the mad bastards, so the traffic was on the lighter side.
Being on a bit more of a time restriction, we flew. The upside to flying is that it takes only 40 minutes from Suvarnabhumi to Trat – surely the world’s smallest and cutest airport. At the airport a van is waiting to whisk you to the ferry over to Koh Chang. The downside (apart from the distinctly iffy eco impact) is that only Bangkok Airways fly to Trat, so they have something of a monopoly on price.
Don’t expect Air Asia prices – ours were 4000THB (100 GBP) return. For that you get an extremely fun flight ina propeller plane over lush Thai countryside, and a meal. A top tip is to avoid the vegetarian option. Frankie got what can only be described as a sweetcorn sandwich, while I got the non-vegetarian option, which can only be described as a massive chocolate cake.
A quick 20 minute drive later and we were on the ferry to Koh Chang. If you’re on a private transfer as we were, you can jump the queue for the car ferry. If not, be prepared for the car queue to get pretty long. The ferry costs 80THB for foot traffic and something like 180THB for a car, and it takes around 30 minutes. The last ferry is at around 7pm, but if you fly on the 5pm flight from Bangkok and it’s delayed, the ferry will wait apparently.
The scenery on the way over to Koh Chang is quite spectacular.
The ferry over makes you realise just how gigantic Koh Chang is. Named Koh Chang because it’s shape resembles an elephant’s head (Chang meaning elephant in Thai), it could easily refer to the massive scale of the place. Thick, jungle-covered peaks dominate the island. It’s visually stunning, and feels a little like heading to Jurassic Park.
There are a few retreats in the forest and it’s possible to hike up to waterfalls and do some trekking if you’re that way inclined. On our list for another time is to visit the two other islands in the chain. Koh Mak and Koh Kood lie south of Koh Chang. Whenever we ask for recommendation from Thai friends, Koh Kood always tops the list. It will have to go some way to beat Koh Chang, but we shall find out for you and report back. The horror!
Instead of trekking, we were much more interested in being lazy, laying on beaches, and enjoying the cool taste of Chang beer at 11 in the morning. So our van headed down to the southern end of the island, and our famed backpacker destination: Lonely Beach.
Lonely Beach, Koh Chang
Lonely Beach is known as a backpacker destination, and this is certainly reflected in the prices. We stayed at the lovely little Warapura Resort, in a private bungalow with a garden and sea view and a pretty lavish breakfast thrown in. It was about 1200THB (30 GBP) per night for two of us. Close to town, yet very quiet even with loud bars nearby, this place was great.
The restaurant/bar area also has stunning views out over the sea. In the mornings hundreds of fish would leap in formation from the shallows as the sun slowly rose and we reclined on cushions with coffee and breakfast. It’s a pretty nice way to start a day.
Most of the accommodation at Lonely Beach is about a 10 minute walk from the beach itself, and what a beach it is:
The usual Thai tickboxes of white sand, crystal clear water and warm seas all apply to Lonely Beach. The water is shallow all the way out, meaning you can swim in bath-like water all day long, or stand and chat a good hundred metres from shore.
This being low season in Thailand, the beach was utterly deserted except us, a couple of families and a couple of other small groups. We sat in the shade, drank beers and generally laughed at how ridiculously beautiful the surrounding were. Have the beach backdropped by the thick green forest (with bonus monkeys wandering around) and mountains really adds to the whole show. It’s a wonderful place.
We were lucky in avoiding any rain at all for the entire three days – not a guarantee in June by any means.
Food and (too much) drink
In terms of eating, best bets at Lonely Beach are the small, family shops. At the very edge of town, closest to the beach, is a small restaurant serving the usuals. Fried rice, noodle soups, pad thai. We found this perfectly serviceable and it was popular with locals as well. Good-sized plates were just 40THB (1 GBP) and they were happy to make dishes veggie.
In town itself, there’s another fairly non-descript family restaurant just opposite the Sleepy Owl cafe. We ate here two nights and they do excellent curries, pad grapow and other Thai staples. You can also go and buy drinks from the shop over the road and have them with your meals. This type of eating is markedly cheaper (and better) than you’ll get in Phuket or Samui, another draw of Koh Chang.
For western food, Warapura does a good line in pizzas.
A big draw for many to Lonely Beach is the comprehensive selection of bars. If walking in to a thick cloud of cannabis smoke is your bag, Stone Free (clue in the title) has good beer and good music. Soi 1 is the main bar street, however. An array of brightly lit bars festoon the street, alternating between pumping techno and live bands fronted by men who look like internationally almost-famous singing man Pitbull. This is probably great in the high season, but when it’s your group plus two dutch backpackers, the effect is somewhat lost.
Lonely Beach specialises in buckets, which are a surefire way to get wasted in short order and are usually buy one get one free. For an authentic Thai touch and a hangover you will remember for years, opt for Sangsom rum as your poison. It has a heady bouquet of petrol and battery acid, and causes memory loss in about four sips. It is, however, extremely cheap, but bear in mind that waking up with a monstrous hangover when it’s 30 degrees outside is no fun for anyone.
Be aware that drugs are pretty openly available in Lonely Beach, and you’ll be actively offered them even by bar staff and even if you look like a particularly boring nerd like I do. It’s not our thing, but if it’s yours remember that Thailand is uncompromising when it comes to dealing with drug offences.
Needless to say we woke with a monstrous hangover in 30 degree heat on our final day after staying up til 3 in the morning drinking filth.
Luckily there is an idyllic beach to recover on, good food to bring back energy, and bath warm water to cleanse our awful, hung over souls. Next time I think we’ll avoid the Sangsom.
Koh Chang and Lonely Beach have a lot going for them. We’ll check out some other beaches in future, but as a Thai beach destination it beats Phuket for us, and it’s pretty easy to get to from Bangkok.